The hardest dose of despondence
Looking for advice on how to move on from a breakup? The internet’s good, self-help books are alright, alcohol certainly helps. Perhaps not, though, a middle aged, barrel-chested bloke who appears to be so incapable of love these days.
This time last year, I was happily living with my partner of several years, and the obsessive fan worship of Morrissey that had defined my teenage years was packed up and forgotten. Both of these things would dissolve across 2018.
“I will not change and I will not be nice.” There’s something in that lyric, from a 1990 Morrissey b-side, which typifies why the man is so appealing in your teens, then suddenly so… juvenile in your twenties. You can’t start dating with that approach. You can’t make a good fist of starting a job with that approach. As the late comedian Sean Hughes put it, “everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase, except Morrissey.”
I was a sensitive teenager, the right wrong blend of pretentiousness and precociousness, and growing up in a mordant Lancashire town demanded some form of armour. This was the kind of town where even the seemingly innocuous act of wearing denim could be viewed as an invitation to aggression, and that’s before throwing fuel on the fire by a dalliance with nail varnish. With confidence, personality and basic social skills still very much in the post, the arrival of Morrissey both validated the way I already felt and gave me a road map (albeit a thoroughly imperfect one) to navigating a tricky situation.
Time moved on, and Morrissey made it easy for me to cut the apron strings. I came to the realisation that it was worth changing, worth being nice. Morrissey decided it was worth saying he almost voted for UKIP, worth saying Sadiq Khan “cannot talk properly”. I still heard his music out, but I fell away from listening to him for pleasure – the voice that once offered so much comfort now left me cold.
Across the summer of last year, while you were enjoying that fevered, sticky heatwave, my life was cleaving in two. At first without me knowing at all, and then – one August Saturday – I did know it, and that was that. Of course, a breakup is a completely typical experience. The problem is, nothing feels typical when it’s happening to you. A past, with its own unique codes and language, disappears. A future is cancelled. The present? Just horrible.
In the immediate aftermath, I went and stayed for a week with my friend Diana in Spain. In her car one afternoon, the Morrissey track ‘The Lazy Sunbathers’ came over the radio. Glistening with reverb and a twinkling, cinematic melancholy – the song landed in a way that nothing else had. The feeling was stark; after a week of overwhelming mental distraction, here was something on which I could focus, from opening chords to gentle fade-out. I stared out the window at the blue sky and the palm trees, saying nothing.
Returning home, I found myself in an empty flat with equally barren nights stretching ahead of me. My grieving mind could brilliantly regurgitate painful memories, and rapid-fire unanswerable questions; what it could not do was let in any of the things that usually anchored my life. I tried to read, focus on a film, put a record on. Nothing.
In desperation, I laid on the hard laminate floor of my flat and streamed ‘The Lazy Sunbathers’. The feeling returned – continually just about to change to another artist, in the end I listened to Morrissey all night. I soon found myself on a strict diet of Morrissey solo material; the hardest dose of despondence known to man, the crack cocaine of self-pity. I was relieved, but equally troubled. Just what was going on? The final time I’d been to watch Morrissey in concert, I’d been surprised at my inability to relate to the braying gammon with an impotent quiff onstage. What had changed? Was this nostalgia? I tried other music from my teen years; it sounded as bland as it otherwise would have done a few months previously. Had Morrissey predicted this all along? “The most impassionate song to a lonely soul is so easily outgrown,” sang Morrissey on Smiths b-side ‘Rubber Ring’. “But don’t forget,” it continues, “the songs that made you smile and the songs that made you cry.”
There’s something in the persecution complex that runs rich through Morrissey’s writing that felt vital once again – ‘How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?’, ‘I Am Hated for Loving’, ‘Sorry Doesn’t Help’. There’s a brilliant line in ‘Now My Heart Is Full’ – “I just can’t explain so I won’t even try to” – that summons all of the exhausted inarticulacy that I now associate with that time. God, some of the advice was even wise and useful – ‘Hold On To Your Friends’, ‘Do Your Best and Don’t Worry’.
My break from Morrissey had arrived through disgust at his politics; was I now supporting a man I viewed as beyond the pale? I’ve no hard answers on this – the music helped me profoundly, and I’m sceptical of why anything should come in the way of that. Buying a new Morrissey album? Watching him live? These do feel too much still. And besides, time once again hurried on. The pain receded, so too did the need to keep chaining Morrissey. As Sean Hughes’ quote foretold, every breakup too, it seems, must also grow out of its Morrissey phase.